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October 2, 2011

Baltimore Symphony shines in program with Tortelier, Gutierrez

This weekend's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program has a lot going for it -- spirited conductor, inspired soloist, a vibrant mix of repertoire.

I caught Saturday night's performance at the Meyerhoff (it repeats there on Sunday afternoon). Just about everything seemed to be clicking from the start.

The orchestra clearly likes working with Yan Pascal Tortelier, who guest-conducts here frequently -- his most recent BSO appearance was just last March.

He is no shrinking violet on the podium (at intermission I overheard some students laughing about his "jumping jacks"), but there is an obvious communicative power behind his animated style.

Tortelier gets these players to dig into music with a palpable freshness and enthusiasm, and he did so on this occasion to memorable effect with a well-organized program.

Following a practice that used to be common a century or more ago, the heaviest stuff came first -- in this case, Sibelius' Fifth. Then, after intermission, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19 and Elgar's "In the South." (Mahler, for one, thought that such an arc was better for audiences, who are at their most alert and attentive at the start of a concert.)

The Sibelius symphony is  ...



one of the composer's finest, maybe his greatest. It is taut and brilliantly organized, seeming to emerge organically from some earthy life force. The score has a way of grabbing hold and never letting go, and that's what Tortelier ensured in a performance that moved inexorably along.

With works like this, I wish the BSO could afford to be at, say, 110-strong, which would help the weightiest chords in this symphony knock you back in your seat. But the ensemble, now usually closer to 90 in number, can still produce an impressive sound, which it did on Saturday.

The playing also had considerable character and color. Truly gossamer articulation from the violins in the gentlest moments proved especially admirable. The brass, too, contributed strongly to the atmospheric performance.

For the Mozart concerto, the number of players was appropriately reduced; the clarity and warmth of the music-making remained the same, in this case with the woodwinds leading the way.

At the keyboard, Horacio Gutierrez offered his accustomed wealth of elegance and expressive richness. There was an infectiously joyful nature to his phrasing, a crystalline quality to his tone. Tortelier offered effortless partnering throughout.

As I may have mentioned before, I love Elgar's music and wish we heard more of it around here. So it was great to have the relatively under-appreciated "In the South" on this program (I seem to have missed the BSO's most recent performance of the piece in 2005, on a non-subscription concert).

This souvenir of an Italian sojourn is not as cheery as, say, Tchaikovsky's. Given that Elgar encountered yucky weather on his 1904 visit, the rather dramatic nature of the score may not be surprising.

At one point, things sound downright scary, even a little tragic (perhaps Elgar had a premonition of the current Italian woes of debt and embarrassing politicians). But this sweeping work, with its obvious debt to Richard Strauss, is awfully entertaining, both in terms of melodic richness and prismatic instrumentation.

The BSO responded vividly to Tortelier's obvious affection for the work (he conducted it, as he had the Sibelius symphony, from memory). A darkly beautiful solo from principal violist Richard Field was among the highlights.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BSO (Photo of Horacio Gutierrez by Christian Steiner) 

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:51 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


Spot on review. Too bad budget constraints at The Baltimore Sun preclude more timely reviews so that more people could have enjoyed this performance.

90 players? Looked more like 75-80 to me. I've enjoyed your work very much, but will likely drop web access in protest of management's decision to charge print subscribers an extra $60/year. As one who is inside the profession, and who has some inkling of the balancing act which you perform so adroitly, DO keep up the good work... Sayonara, Mo

I didn't count 'em onstage, but referred to the official personnel list. I agree with you that it looked smaller. More importantly, thanks for reading. Sorry to lose you. UPDATE: It's only $29.99 a year. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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